Facing contradictions, divides: Artist reflects on life of cultural extremes


    Now he lives in Detroit. His droll sculpture show at the Suffolk University Art Gallery plunges into the divides and contradictions he experiences in his two cultures — and within himself.

    Johnson mashes up elements of American consumer culture with traditional African figure carving. Look at “me me me,’’ which started out as an ebony figurine for the tourist market in Africa. The artist has fashioned it into a self-portrait, carving away all evidence of the original statue, and placed it on a white Ikea shelf. The new figure looks exposed in this almost clinical DIY environment: He holds his hands over his genitals and grins awkwardly, looking maniacal yet apologetic.

    “Smile’’ sets another carved figure on a coffee table covered with cheap wood veneer and paint splatter. The figure depicts a chubby, naked baby boy, elegantly hand-carved in ebony, except where Johnson took a Dremel tool to the head, which is rugged, aggressively chipped away, and bares the same overextended grin seen in “me me me.’’ That grin betrays a nightmarish anxiety, a social mask, or both.

    “Playball’’ features several heads cast in pale yellow foam in a nylon netted bag; one has fallen out to be kicked across the floor. These grin, too, and their eyes are squeezed shut, as if anticipating impact. Johnson isn’t critiquing one culture over the other; his work is more intriguing than that, layering differing values and aesthetics to create a funny, unnerving friction.

    Scopes reenactment

    Boru O’Brien O’Connell’s stark, layered exhibit of photos and video at LaMontagne Gallery considers history’s distance, and the encrustation of meaning that flows into the gulf between then and now. The show revolves around the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn., and reenactors in an annual restaging of the event.

    Reenacting honors history, but it also codifies it. In “Reenactment,’’ a three-channel video, O’Connell shares a split screen with the actors playing defendant John T. Scopes, defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, and prosecutor William Jennings Bryan. The actor recites a line from memory, repeatedly and sometimes getting it wrong, and the artist reflexively parrots each word, draining the script of meaning. O’Connell makes a counterpoint to the swollen import of reenactment. Yes, the Scopes Trial mattered; teaching evolution remains a flashpoint in American society. But you can’t capture historical events in amber. They shift and sway according to the needs of the present.

    O’Connell’s black-and-white photos were shot around the Tennessee courtroom where the trial took place, and where the reenactment is staged. He photographed the actors, seats in the courtroom, and views outside. His triptychs feature three viewpoints of the same thing (or, in one case, images of the three actors). He stacked them, then riddled them with buckshot. The prints bear patterns of bullet holes. To me, the violence of shooting the photographs calls the viewer back to the present from a dream of the past, like the rap of a Zen master’s stick on the shoulder of a daydreaming meditator.

    Also at LaMontagne, Meredith James has a crafty video on view, in which she performs a scene from Adolfo Bioy Casares’s science fiction novel “The Invention of Morel.’’ James plays a man who breaks into a blue-tiled room with a hammer. He finds a machine inside the room, and when the machine turns on, the hole, which is the only exit, vanishes. Terror ensues, and in the end, a solution.

    The visuals are gorgeous. But there are some technical problems. The video streams from two opposing projectors onto a frosted glass screen. It’s a beautiful, tricky way to layer imagery, but the reality they create together is not seamless; the hole, for instance, doesn’t truly disappear. Suspension of disbelief failed me.

    An architectural angle

    Carolyn Swiszcz’s paintings of architecture in a faux-naive style are anything but naive. In her show at Steven Zevitas Gallery, she artfully manipulates space and deploys a variety of techniques, including rubber stamps and printmaking, which result in a spatially flattened, atmospherically deep depiction of the world.

    Mostly she focuses on vernacular architecture. “Adams Inn, Quincy MA’’ captures the low-slung Best Western near Neponset Circle against a breathtaking, watery, scumbled backdrop of blue hills. “Showcase Cinemas, Revere MA’’ has the movie theater’s quotidian billboard emblazoned against a backdrop of broad brushstrokes, a stark evocation of a mauve sky over a wintry landscape.

    She also tackles a landmark. “Boston City Hall, Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles’’ describes volume, with shadows in windows and along the plaza-level entries. But that sense of space argues against planes of flat pink barriers in front of the building, and a foreshortened plaza. Shuttling expertly between surface and depth, rubber-stamp simplicity and painterly grace, Swiszcz imbues even the plainest structures with beauty.

    Cate McQuaid can be reached at cmcq@speakeasy.net.